Oops! A Clumsy Museum Visitor Tripped and Damaged an Ancient Chinese Bronze Sculpture of an Owl in Minneapolis

Included in a new exhibition of ancient Chinese bronzes, the vessel was once used in rituals of ancestral worship.

The Pillsbury owl from Mia's collection. Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Every museum visitor’s worst nightmare is accidentally falling into a priceless masterpiece or knocking over a precious artifact. Unfortunately, this terror came true last month for one unlucky visitor at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, who tripped and damaged an ancient Chinese zun, or wine vessel, in the shape of an owl.

The charming bronze, which dates from the 12th or 13th century B.C.E, is known as the Pillsbury Owl. Nobody was injured by the incident, which took place on April 9, and the exhibit was immediately removed for assessment and safekeeping. It will undergo conservation and repair work, though it is unclear how long this will take, according to a statement released by the museum.

The object had been perched at the entrance of “Eternal Offerings: Chinese Ritual Bronzes,” a special exhibition of 150 bronze vessels associated with ritual and ancestral worship and power in ancient Chinese society. It was designed by the art director and Oscar-winning film designer Tim Yip.

The Shang Dynasty zun would once have been used to hold wine that was intended as a ceremonial offering to ancestors. Its guise as an animal is highly typical of the period. It was bequeathed to the museum in 1950 by the industrialist and philanthropist Alfred F. Pillsbury whose prolific collection of Asian art formed the basis for the next exhibition.

For the rest of the exhibition’s run through May 21, visitors will be greeted at the door instead by a set of 5th- or 4th-century B.C.E. bronze-winged dragons, which have moved from the second gallery.


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